Taiwan’s Chen rattles the prison bars

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian, serving the third year of his 17-and-a-half-year prison term for corruption, has been grabbing much renewed attention lately. This time around, however, it is not his crimes or trials that are in the focus but the state of his health. 

The list of Chen’s ailments seems to grow longer every week, and his doctors now say the former head of state will die within four years if not released from his tiny cell. But while appeals for Chen’s medical parole have been gaining momentum both in Taiwan and elsewhere, his successor in office, President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, seems to remain unimpressed. He shows no hurry in letting Chen go, even though a release would hardly harm the KMT the slightest. Quite the opposite – the

  

prospect of Chen emerging from behind the bars frightens his former political companions. 

Acute coronary syndrome, two benign tumors, degenerative joint disease, hypothermia, autonomic instability, post-traumatic stress syndrome and clinical depression – this is what Chen has so far been diagnosed with this year. According to contested accounts, he has made three suicide attempts – two by hunger strike, and one by banging his head against prison walls. Solely blamed by his supporters for the former president’s health problems are the conditions of detention in Taipei Prison. 

He is allowed to spend time out of his 4.56-square-meter cell for only an hour a day. Unlike his fellow inmates, he’s not allowed to work in the prison’s workshops, suggesting he has considerable less daily social interaction. Furthermore, undoubtedly hard to bear for Chen, 62, is the disturbing feature that in his cell, he has to make do without bed, table or chair. 

“Falling from heaven to hell,” is how he recently described his drastic drop in living standards. 

As a movement calling for his release on medical grounds gains momentum, it at long last seems as if Chen’s days behind bars are numbered, however. In mid-June, a team of US medical experts flew in to investigate his imprisonment, subsequently labeling the conditions of the former president’s confinement as “unacceptable”. A week later, a handful of local doctors launched an online petition calling for medical parole, and almost simultaneously, the city council of Greater Taichung, a constituency in Taiwan’s center, passed a motion calling for his release for medical treatment as soon as possible. 

Then, Chen’s former party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also became more vocal. The disgraced former leader was expelled by his political companions in 2009, but they now urge public support for him. 

On July 14, more encouragement from abroad came in: Two US lawmakers submitted a medical report to a US Congress human rights commission, calling for immediate medical parole. The news that doctors hired by Chen’s family found his life was at risk, and that he would die within four years if not released, subsequently grabbed headlines in the island’s media. 

And on July 18, a US senator urged the administration of President Barack Obama to come to Chen’s rescue. 

Although – at least according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks – President Ma once considered exercising his power to pardon his predecessor, there are no recent signs whatsoever that he will grant mercy. He has repeatedly ruled out presidential parole, and he generally preaches law and order. Preferential treatment for someone who used his presidency to wire US$22 million secretly into Swiss bank accounts seems not quite to fit with Ma’s standards. 

Indeed, when pros and cons confront each other, they might not produce any conclusion that is convincing to policymakers in Taipei. On the pro side, there is the argument that by showing mercy, the Ma administration, and in turn Taiwan, would do something for its image internationally. Taipei is certainly well aware of remarks made by US Representative Steve Chabot, who compared Taiwan to a “banana republic” for imprisoning Chen. On the domestic front, it is often said a release would heal serious political divisions in Taiwan, as Chen’s supporters have all along seen his downfall as the result of a political vendetta. 

A release would furthermore mean government officials could afford to focus on doing their jobs instead of spending their days worrying about their own personal safety. The precedent that a head of state has his predecessor jailed augurs badly for current leadership circles, as officials are inherently vulnerable to accusations of illegal acceptance of a benefit or embezzlement. For example, when serving as Taipei mayor, Ma was indicted on charges that included the use public money to pay for a physical examination and fees to adopt a dog. (Ma was cleared, but his secretary was not so lucky, having received a 14-month sentence for the story.) 

Furthermore, but slightly more abstract, there is the possibility that the lawful jailing of a former leader serves as a cautionary tale for leaders of countries that are at the crossroads toward establishing the rule of law. More directly put, after having seen Chen’s demise, Chinese Communist Party officials might think twice about accepting Taiwan as a role model and giving up power to the judiciary. 

On the con side, there stands first and foremost the principle of fairness: The circumstance that Chen once led a luxurious life can hardly justify that other criminals who are of humbler backgrounds are treated worse than him. Certainly also worth considering is that parole is an apparently unpopular concept in Taiwanese culture. Christian missionaries lament that forgiveness is rare to non-existent in the dynamics of a Taiwanese household, which possibly explains why the public by and large is indifferent to Chen’s case. 

Also, John Copper, a US expert on Taiwan politics and professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, said Chen’s story shouldn’t be portrayed as anywhere near a human-rights concern. According to Copper, Chen hardly deserves having his case seen in that context as it was during Chen’s own presidency that human rights in Taiwan witnessed a serious deterioration. 

“Press freedom, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and the treatment of foreign workers, non-Taiwan-born spouses and other immigrants all noticeably declined – but currently the human-rights condition in Taiwan is considered very good,” Copper said. 

“Chen has been given medical treatment while in prison and is provided with adequate medicines; if his health is slowly failing, it is likely the result of something other than his medical care.” 

In terms of everyday domestic politics, there is much that suggests that if Chen were to be released now, it would do the DPP no good. He has written six books while in jail, with a seventh one in the making, and he also has a weekly column in the Chinese-language weekly Next magazine. In his writings, Chen often settles old scores with senior DPP figures, particularly former party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and current chairman Su Tseng-chang. In jail, Chen founded the One Side, One Country Alliance, which has since won a few dozen seats in local-council elections, tapping into the DPP’s voter base. 

Illustrating how uneasy Tsai and Su, both of whom are said to harbor ambitions of running as the DPP’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election, see the prospect of having Chen once more popping up in domestic politics and stirring up old DPP leadership rivalries, it recently took an obviously reluctant Su weeks and a good portion of criticism to sign a petition for medical parole; Tsai last year visited Chen’s mother but conspicuously chose not to echo calls for his release on the occasion. 

Political scientists don’t agree on how great the magnitude of a release would be, though. 

“I think the DPP would as a whole be harmed by Chen, who would inevitably push a hard line on cross-strait relations,” said Zhang Baohui, an expert on East Asian democratization and associate professor at the department of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “Voters don’t like a return to the past.” 

But according to Wang Yeh-lih, chairman of the department of political science of National Taiwan University in Taipei, it would not matter. 

“Ma would not be criticized from within his own party for granting parole, while Chen can see people and express his opinions every day even as he is in prison.” Wang emphasized that in hospital, Chen would have a better living environment, but still couldn’t go to other places. 

“Anyway, they would send him back to prison once his health got better.” 

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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